The Biden administration declared that “America is back.” To say that the United States is trying to make the world – and Europe – happy with a dead bird is something that goes a long way. But it is clear that America’s return is not always enthusiastically welcomed by Europeans. What causes this reserve? Is it because the United States is no longer a strong and reliable ally in the Trump era that the leadership position is no longer self-evident? Or do the Europeans prefer to keep America at a distance so that they do not force themselves to take a stand?
The United States is relatively weaker than it was a quarter of a century ago, when it ended the war in Bosnia after much hesitation, because Europe itself could not. But the European Union is also weakening. I wonder if Europe can keep the United States in trouble.
Thinking is required. The geopolitical distance between Europe and the United States has grown for a long time. Since the end of the (ancient) Cold War, their relationship has soured and become economically less important to each other. Trump had no qualms about publicly showing his contempt for Europe, but many believe an attitude of contempt was already in place under Obama or Bush. The question is whether Trump has really made big changes. It appears to have been mainly a stylistic difference. American interests always come first and Trump has only made that clear. Moreover, the United States will essentially take care of itself in the near future and it will not be fruitful to invite it as a loyal ally.
On top of that is the American failure: countless people have died in Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The world’s policeman has done anything to increase the suffering, violated human rights and does not want to be held accountable for the crimes committed, as is the case at Guantanamo, including international tribunals. Moreover, it is no longer clear to many Americans what they themselves had benefited from an active foreign policy. Most of all, it led to higher costs and more hostility and deaths. Trump’s retrograde moves met with support.
This does not change the fact that Europe and the United States need each other more than ever. Everywhere democracy is under pressure and human rights are violated. This trend will continue due to the increasing influence of China. The European Union remains deeply divided internally, cooperation is under pressure, and democracy is no longer a natural part of what Europe stands for. The temptations for economic cooperation with China, and to a lesser extent with Russia, are on the horizon.
It is fanciful to hope – as Macron believes in the de Gaulle tradition – that France can transform Europe into a powerful global player in a multipolar world. It is also shortsighted to believe that without a critical policy against China, European interests would ultimately be protected, as Asia expert Michael Schumann recently argued. This underestimates the Chinese intentions towards Europe.
Imperfection everywhere, failure, opportunism and sterile competition everywhere. North Atlantic cooperation cannot go back to the 1950s or even five years ago. Restoring confidence takes time.
However, the United States and Europe share a common set of values, although they are under pressure and will only increase in the coming years. If we are to save this community of values, America will have to return and lead an alliance of democracies with a Europe where human rights are respected. But this is only possible if the Americans and Europeans still believe in him and are willing to make their own contribution to this alliance.
James Kennedy is an American historian and dean of University College Utrecht. In Trouw, he presents his vision of Dutch society every two weeks. Read more James Kennedy columns here.